Experts look at a young officer’s murderous rampage
You’ve no doubt read or watched the national coverage about the off-duty law officer in a one-stoplight timber town in Wisconsin’s North Woods who recently burst into an early-hours pizza party of high school friends…slaughtered 6 of them, including his ex-girlfriend, with his AR-15…opened fire on a responding fellow officer, a friend of his…eluded authorities for hours with deceptive calls about his whereabouts…and finally killed himself with 3 pistol rounds to his neck and head after negotiations for his surrender failed and he was wounded in the arm by a SWAT sniper.
The offender, Tyler Peterson, was a part-time officer with the police department in the town of about 2,000 population, a full-time deputy for the sheriff’s department, and a member of the county’s Special Emergency Response Team.
Fully certified, he was 20 years old and had been in law enforcement for less than a year. He hired on when he was 19. [Read news reports on PoliceOne.com].
Urgent questions have emerged. Might the risk of violent explosion have been detected in Peterson by stricter pre-employment screening and certification standards? What latent demons may have driven him? Is anyone his age too young to be a cop? How will his murderous actions affect law enforcement generally and, in particular, those who served with him and those who had to hunt him down?
Force Science News consulted 3 prominent authorities on police psychology for their professional insights: Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato; Dr. Alexis Artwohl, an advisory board member for FSRC and a former police psychologist in Portland, OR; and Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, former vice president of the Society of Police and Criminal Psychology and also a member of FSRC’s board.
Our intent is not to Monday-morning quarterback Wisconsin authorities but to call attention to potential problems in other jurisdictions as well, where, in Lewinski’s words, “disasters are waiting to happen.”
Share your comments with us: Your comments on our panel’s observations and on your own experiences in these matters are welcome by e-mailing the Force Science Editorial Staff.
As in some other jurisdictions, no psychological testing is required in Wisconsin for prospective LEOs and none was voluntarily administered to Tyler Peterson before he was hired by either agency. Could such testing have made a difference?
An advocate of psychological testing for 35 years, Gilmartin insists that the reliability of such screening is “excellent” and strongly believes that testing should be mandated in all states as a standard, precautionary condition of certification.
“Whenever you move away from a foundational concept like this,” he says, “you risk a tragedy.” Yet he is “astounded and concerned” that even some major federal agencies, with thousands of officers in field situations that require critical decision-making every day, do not administer psychological tests to their enforcement personnel.
Artwohl agrees that meaningful screening procedures “are obviously important and effective.” But she cautions that no attempt at predicting human behavior can guarantee 100% accuracy. Psychological testing done today cannot guarantee that a person will not have a serious problem through a 25-year career.”
She cites the case of a respected officer in a Western state who passed competent screening and testing done by his agency. But later, beset with marital problems, he murdered his wife and killed himself, leaving their young child an orphan.
“If he’d been in a happy, harmonious relationship, that tragedy might never have happened,” Artwohl says. “Who knows what kind of unpredictable personal or professional pressure may arise in the future that could cause an individual to step over the boundaries of their usual personality?”
Lewinski adds that the value of psychological testing depends heavily on the quality of the tester. In some places, he explains, a psych eval consists merely of “a generalized personality test scored by a computer and loosely overseen by a licensed psychologist.
“The testing may even take place in a day-care facility for mentally and developmentally impaired people, run by a professional who knows nothing more about law enforcement that the impressions he or she gets from TV. Sometimes there’s little meaningful psychological interviewing done. A programmed report is sent to the hiring agency, and the standard is usually rock bottom: Does the prospective officer present an immediate danger to himself or others.
“These are not admirable or optimal conditions.” He recalls a situation in Minnesota where a “skills” [academy] recruit passed a psychological test “proving” he was not dangerous—and 6 months later, he got into a fight with his roommate and killed him.
“Departments need to spend time interfacing with the psychologist about the test used and what else the tester is doing to effectively select out candidates who do not fit into the department and the community and select in those who do,” Lewinski says.
Guidelines for quality testing are well-documented, thanks in large part to the Psychological Services Section of the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police, Gilmartin points out. “The random solo practitioner, acting without well-researched guidelines, is an obsolete model,” he says.
“But unfortunately,” Lewinski claims, “many departments don’t know and don’t care. So long as some psychologist OKs the people they want to hire, that’s good enough for them.”
What about background checks? Wisconsin’s standards, for example, require that they be “thorough” in establishing an officer’s “good character.”
Done well, background investigations can be “a better screening mechanism than psychological testing,” in Lewinski’s opinion. Unfortunately, Artwohl says, compromises may be allowed as agencies, facing a presently shrinking pool of qualified applicants, “get desperate for warm bodies to put into patrol cars.”
Small towns and rural areas “tend not to do good checks,” Lewinski says, “because they ‘know’ the subject being evaluated.” [In the case of Peterson, his family was well-known and had been involved in local public service, his mother having served as the county’s deputy treasurer.]
What’s more, backgrounds that once would have disqualified candidates are now more often acceptable, with consequences yet to be determined. According to a recent Associated Press report, for instance, the number of departments nationwide requiring candidates to have “a clean criminal record” has dropped to only 1 in 5, because of personnel shortages. Most “still disallow anyone with a felony conviction,” but occasional drug use in the past may be overlooked.
Lewinski says one large Midwestern city he’s familiar with has hired “officers who were alcoholics or who used ’roids and coke”—blatant red flags that showed up in background checks, but did not prevent the officers from being hired.
“Agencies think they can’t afford good procedures and high standards,” Gilmartin observes. “The truth is, they can’t afford not to have them.” With cash-strapped, personnel-scarce rural towns, he suggests, the ultimate answer may be to abandon the idea of local policing and turn the job over “to the next level of government that will maintain professional standards. If a community can’t or won’t fund policing adequately, then it shouldn’t be in the policing business.”
In Wisconsin, newly hired LEOs have 1 year in which to complete a 520-hour recruit academy for their certification, 5 years in which to accumulate mandatory college credits—not unlike some other states. During this time, they can carry a gun and make arrests as authorized by their agencies. Does this seem reasonable?
Tyler Peterson was fully certified before his violent outburst, so his training met the state’s minimal requirements. But, Lewinski points out, “with grace periods like these, which are not uncommon in the U.S., a person could be working the street with full law enforcement powers without having passed any of the true requirements for becoming an officer.
“If, in addition, a department has no FTO program, there’s no chance to evaluate how an officer reacts under stress or what innate judgment he displays before he’s on his own.” He describes the experience that a new hire reported on a small department in Iowa: “The first night on the job, the chief showed him how to use the radar and gave him a pistol. ‘Do you know how to use this?’ the chief asked. The kid said he did. The chief drove around with him that night. The next night, he went on patrol alone.
“No other profession in the United States other than law enforcement allows people to enter and operate with full authority while waiting a year for training. Imagine if a CPA, a dentist, an optometrist, a doctor could do that!
“An agency may say that a new officer is performing under supervision during the grace period. But in one state I know of, the POST board has admitted that a supervisor could be as far away as Paris, France, available by phone only after a 4-hour delay, and still meet that state’s definition of ‘supervision.’ ”
“We clearly can’t permit this sort of thing any longer,” Gilmartin says. “It’s a hold-over from an era long past. We have to raise the bar.”
How about the issue of age? In some states, as in Wisconsin, you have to be only 18 to be a cop. Shortly before his rampage, Tyler Peterson, at age 20, was even made a SWAT officer. Should he have been in law enforcement at all?
“Research tells us that the human brain is usually not fully developed until sometime in the early 20s,” Lewinski explains. In other words, most people of 18, 19, or even 20 will not have matured emotionally and be capable of great decision-making.
“If you mature early, you may transcend this. But an agency needs to ask if it wants the risk of placing the heavy responsibility and need for keen judgment required of today’s street officers on young people who may still potentially be immature.”
In Gilmartin’s opinion, “Age standing alone would not concern me. There are plenty of 20-year-old sergeants leading soldiers in combat as we talk. But the military is a much more structured and tightly supervised environment than policing, and the decision-making responsibilities are different.”
He agrees that “the typical 20-year-old doesn’t have the necessary level of maturity for police work today. Most are in a period of prolonged adolescence and have not made the personal transition into adulthood. For a such a person to be driving around with a duty-issued AR-15 in his personal vehicle in an unstructured environment is highly risky.
“Selecting a law enforcement officer is a little like handicapping a horse: You have to look at the track record. But a 20 year old doesn’t have a track record. He’s played high school football, maybe, or worked at the Dairy Queen. But is he ready for a tremendous amount of decision-making in an essentially unstructured setting?
“For the most part, the skills of law enforcement are not difficult to teach and master. Eighteen year olds can master them. But they can’t nearly as easily master decision-making under stress. That capacity is terribly complex in emotionally charged situations.”
[During his college and academy training, Tyler Peterson spent a week going through simulation exercises involving deadly force decision-making. Initially, he failed that component of the program. He retook the testing and passed.]
A few contemporaries in his hometown have suggested to reporters that Tyler Peterson acted a bit badge-heavy. Before the shootings, he and a fellow officer were named in a complaint of inappropriate force that remains unresolved. But for the most part he appears to have been well-liked and well-regarded professionally. If a “psychological autopsy” is conducted, that should reveal more about his inner self. Meanwhile, any thoughts on what might have touched him off, based on your professional training and experience?
Lewinski speculates that the crux of the bloodbath lies in Peterson’s relationship with his 18-year-old ex-girlfriend, whom he’d dated for about 4 years and who was one of his victims. She had broken up with him, and he apparently had come to the party at her apartment hoping to reconcile. “This is likely a classic ‘pit bull’ scenario,” Lewinski says.
He refers to a study of domestic violence perpetrators conducted by researchers at the University of Washington. They concluded that 2 personality/behavior types tend to be the most violent in domestic relationships: “cobras” and “pit bulls.”
When angered or frustrated, cobras exhibit highly visible body language of agitation. “They clench their fists, look angry, stomp around, shout, perhaps spit in their opponent’s face. Yet their inner physiological indicators remains perfectly calm, with pulse rates as low as 42 bpm. These are cold-blooded psychopaths who put on an alarming show in an effort to manipulate people, but remain perfectly in control of themselves and their reactions.
“Pit bulls, on the other hand, are highly emotionally dependent on a relationship, over-invested in it. When it begins to fall apart, they tenaciously hang on to it far beyond any indication that it has any chance of succeeding. They desperately need the relationship in order to be who they think they are.
“In the face of a relationship disintegrating, they tend to increase their effort to control the other person—and increase their level of violence—for fear that if they lose their partner they themselves will disintegrate.
“The community might see the subject as a nice guy—and he is, if things are going along well. He only acts out violently when what he needs and needs to control is jeopardized.
“A really good background check or really good psychological testing might surface indications of this tendency toward emotional immaturity and dependency.”
[According to news reports about the case, some people at the pizza party taunted Peterson as a “worthless pig” while he was attempting to reconcile with his girlfriend. It has not been revealed whether she joined in the name-calling.]
Gilmartin speculates that Peterson’s role as a small-town LEO may have made his relationship with his girlfriend critically important to him. “She may have been his only social outlet,” he says.
He explains: “The stress on small town police officers is often greater than it is on those who work in big cities. In a city, it’s easier psychologically to balance the job with an unrelated, off-duty life. You can move into customary civilian roles with much greater anonymity; people may not even realize you are a police officer when you’re not working.
“But in a small town, it’s much harder to get away from your cop role. A critical factor that tends to precipitate inappropriate behavior is isolation. In a small town, you can feel isolated from other officers, because there aren’t very many, and you can feel isolated from other aspects of life because policing becomes your total persona. Everyone knows you as ‘the cop.’ It’s your predominant identity. It’s very easy for a 20 year old to become one-dimensional.”
Almost always in slayings like the Peterson case, Gilmartin says, “there’s a sense of loss involved.” Peterson’s loss of his girlfriend may have assumed epic proportions in his mind. “When people are one-dimensional, they tend to be very possessive, and at risk of angry, fixated rage. Once an outburst starts, it easily gets out of control.”
What’s the probable impact of Peterson’s actions on the law enforcement community and on individual officers?
Even officers far removed from the incident “may be conscious of coming under greater public scrutiny after a horrendous breach of conduct like this,” Lewinski says. “It’s perceived as an embarrassing black mark on the profession, and officers may feel a need to conduct themselves in public to a higher standard even than they ordinarily do.”
“An incident like this gets exaggerated in the police world because cops are supposed to be the extra good guys, the ones who prevent such things,” Artwohl adds. “People normally are a little afraid of the police. When officers show evidence of being mentally unstable, it can be frightening. People want reassurance that officers carrying guns around are very professional, ethical, controlled, and protective individuals.”
Those closest to Peterson—officers from his 2 agencies or working in the area—will understandably feel the greatest impact.
“Any time you have someone who has been accepted as a normal member of your group and who then suddenly goes off the deep end and does something shocking and scary, it really shakes up everyone in the group,” Artwohl observes. “You become concerned about your ability to read people and feel safe with them. You wonder, Who else don’t I know? Who else around here is a ticking time bomb? It jars your view of the world—for cops especially, because they tend to think that people who do crazy things are out there, not in here.”
Officers who knew Peterson personally “might feel grief,” Artwohl says, “but it will be very complicated, because they’ll also likely feel angry at him and betrayed by him. They may blame themselves for not seeing this coming and doing something to stop it. It’s important for them to remember that the only person responsible for what that young man did is that young man.”
As for the trackers who experienced the final confrontation with the killer, Artwohl expects that most of them “will cope well with what they had to do.” Peterson “stepped over the line into being a violent criminal. He called the shots, literally.
“At that point, their training would have kicked in and they would have distanced themselves enough emotionally to react to him as they would to any other violent offender. It’s highly doubtful that his status as a law officer would have impacted on their professional performance.”
She recommends, however, that any officer involved “get the usual post-incident care that they would receive after any other officer-involved shooting.”
“Everyone involved is going to need assistance,” Gilmartin stresses. “No one who was close to what happened is untouched by this tragedy.
“We like to think that something can be learned from every tragedy,” he adds. “Hopefully, law enforcement will learn from this one.”
[NOTE: As this is written, 3 Wisconsin legislators, one of them a former sheriff, are planning to introduce a bill into the state legislature to require psychological screening of all potential LEOs. The sheriff says she believes “the rest of the state’s hiring standards for police officers, including the minimum age of 18,” should be re-evaluated.]